An estimated 125,000 New Yorkers converged on Madison Square Park last weekend to sample some of the best barbecue on the planet, courtesy of Danny Meyer, Kenny Callahan and their partners at Blue Smoke. Eighteen different pitmasters were represented from around the country, and I was fortunate to be embedded with the team from Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in Nolensville, TN, just a few miles south of my hometown of Nashville.
While the lines were long to sample the smoky wares, and some attendees grew a bit impatient with the wait time, most folks probably didn’t appreciate exactly how massive an undertaking it is to cook whole hogs in the middle of a metropolitan area 900 miles away from home. Here’s the view from the inside of one of the teams:
Pat Martin is a force of nature in the barbecue community. As a member of The Fatback Collective and a successful entrepreneur in his own right, his bold personality dominates just about any room he enters. You must prepare yourself for a crushing bear hug or a friendly thump on the back if you’re a friend who Martin hasn’t seen in, say, a day or so. His popularity proceeded himself as he planned for his fifth appearance at the BABBP. He had multiple media appearances planned for the week including national television hits on Today and Fox and Friends. Logistically, this meant that he would have to fly ahead of his cooking team and could not participate in dragging the rig from Tennessee to New York.
Ah…the rig. Martin’s specially constructed rolling Hog Mahal is a 40-foot long monstrosity made out of heavy gauge steel that can cook six whole 200+ lb. hogs and thirty shoulders at the same time. It has to be towed by dually diesel pick up truck and trailed by a chase vehicle to act as a rear view mirror on the interstate, to clear lanes during urban driving and to pick up the occasional traffic cone displaced by the behemoth.
Seven team members, most of whom were friends but not employees of Martin, assembled outside of his flagship restaurant at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday to pack the rig with supplies for the trip, including box fans to keep everyone cool, folding chairs for those who spent the night on fire watch duty, cases of t-shirts, hats and beer coozies to sell and give away, a heavy burn barrel to convert hickory to charcoal, assorted shovels, knives, cleavers and other instruments of destruction and a prodigious amount of cases of beer which probably didn’t contribute to the undertaking’s gas mileage.
Like a rolling billboard for Martin’s and the BABBP, the caravan made its way across the long state of Tennessee before turning left to head up the Eastern seaboard. At every (frequent) refueling stop, questions were answered and apologies were offered for the fact that there was no barbecue on board to sample. “Come to Manhattan and we’ll feed you a sammich,” was the standard response.
Knowing that it would be difficult enough to navigate the Jersey Turnpike, the Lincoln Tunnel and the streets of New York City by daylight, the team elected to stop short of the city late Thursday night where hotel rooms were less expensive and parking for a 70’ truck/trailer combination would be easier to come by. Unfortunately the seediness of the cheap motel necessitated that one team member sleep in the rig to guard the equipment, mainly the beer.
Martin’s promotional poster for the Block Party asked, “How Did We Get a 40 ft. Smoker Through the Lincoln Tunnel?” and the question was repeated by a large percentage of visitors to the cook site. The answer is “actually pretty easily.” Despite the fact that the six individual smoker compartments bore more than a little resemblance to small missile batteries, the toll collector waved the truck through after collecting $52.00, preferring to depend on whatever magical TSA technology uses to scan the vehicles passing through the tunnel rather than crawling around in a grease trap to check for contraband. (Note to any TSA or Port Authority employees who read this: Thanks! We owe you a sandwich next year.)
Crossing through Midtown was easier than expected, thanks to some local knowledge of the one member of the team who had some experience driving in the city. You’re welcome. Within a half hour of exiting the tunnel, the rig was parked in its designated spot at Madison Ave. and 25th Street and the business of firing up the smokers could begin. Knowing that a whole hog can take most of a full day to cook low and slow, and that the first hungry New Yorkers would be demanding their food starting at 11:00 am on Saturday, it was important to get the cooking started as soon as possible. While we waited for Pat LaFrieda to deliver the hogs and shoulders for cooking, the team arranged the rest of the site and considered heading across the park to Eataly to buy a porchetta to cook up for a team meal. Instead, they settled for cheese steaks from around the corner.
An early order of business was to announce that we were in town by hooking up the rig’s sound system and blasting a loud mix of Southern rock, country and the occasional AC/DC song through the trailer’s six speakers. Waylon Jennings, the musical muse of Pitmaster Pat, enjoyed heavy rotation in the playlist. Once the pork arrived, the next twenty hours was dedicated to smoking the meat and preparing the adjoining tent to serve thousands of sandwiches topped with pulled whole hog, slaw and Martin’s piquant West Tennessee-style barbecue sauce. Each plate also came with a side of Wickle’s Pickles, a sweet/spicy treat that perfectly complemented the luscious pork.
During the course of the weekend, many friends, food journalists and celebrities visited the Martin’s compound including Al Roker, Jeffrey Steingarten, Ed Levine and also many of the members of the Fatback Collective: John T. Edge, Sean Brock, Ashley Christensen, Nick Pihakis and his son Nicholas, Drew Robinson, Ryan Prewitt. John Currence, Sam Jones and Rodney Scott. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi was spotted within a block of the Martin’s rig, and the team members all agreed that she was probably looking for us.
During the day, team members stoked fires, took pigs off the smoker and replaced them with new ones to the slack-jawed fascination of attendees, and tried to entertain the crowds waiting in line for their chance to purchase some South in their mouth. The one area of the rig that was not available for public view was a table surrounded with rattan room dividers to conceal the horror show of one Martin’s employee who worked tirelessly eight hours a day taking the steaming hot whole hogs delivered to him periodically in coolers and breaking them down with only a cleaver and his heavily-gloved hands into trays of meat for the sandwich crews. Ankle deep in grease and gristle like a scene from Dexter and fueled only by multiple bottles of Five Hour Energy Drink, Leo may have been the MVP of the whole operation.
Despite the fact that the entire Block Party was extremely well organized and volunteers undertook the seemingly-sisyphean task of marking the ends of the waiting lines for each pitmaster by holding up flags that were color coordinated with the flag over the serving tent, by the time attendees reached the point of actual commerce they were grasping hungrily at the paper trays of meat like a horde of zombies reaching through the basement door in Night of the Living Dead.
The moments of supreme satisfaction for the Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint team came when members looked up from their assigned tasks to see hundreds of New Yorkers taking pictures of their porky prize with cell phone cameras to share with their jealous friends or when moans of satisfaction would blurt out uncontrollably accompanied with excited utterances like “OhmigodsoTHISiswhatit’ssupposedtotastelike!”
Living in the South and growing up around expert barbecue barons like Pat Martin, many of us often forget what a treasure we can enjoy any day of the year within a twenty minute drive from downtown. Seeing how much it means to folks who can’t easily get the good stuff and being able to share the benefits of generations of artisan pig smokers with them is what powered that 40-foot trailer from Nolensville to New York and back. Well, that and a thousand bucks worth of diesel fuel.